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THE NATION

Army's Reality Game Takes a Deadly Turn

Military: A soldier dies, another is wounded in misunderstanding over N.C. training exercise.

February 27, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

King drew parallels between the work done during Robin Sage and work that was done in Afghanistan.

Pineland, he noted at Tuesday's news conference, is a land occupied by an illegally installed government, backed by invaders from the north. The war game goal of the U.S., as played out in training, is to liberate Pineland from the oppressors.

The special operations forces must meet up with guerrillas fighting within Pineland to help train and supply their efforts. They must navigate a world in which there are enemy troops abetted by law enforcement officials. In addition, they face three types of civilians: those working with them, those working against them and a majority who are neutral.

It is an elaborate, multilayered game designed to test the adaptability of troops in the field, with only about 30% of soldiers who enter Special Forces training reaching this final test.

Tomeny and Phelps were 12 days into the exercise when the incident took place. Their group, one of 15 detachments operating separately throughout the whole of Pineland, already had infiltrated enemy ground, made contact with guerrillas, set up a drop zone for supplies and located and set up the rescue for a downed pilot.

Saturday, King noted, was to have been a quiet day.

The assignment seemed simple. The two men were sent on a reconnaissance mission to scope out a railroad bridge east of Robbins. At noon they left their base camp to meet up with Leiber, the civilian driver.

After checking out the bridge, the three men drove up and down Route 705 near the town of 1,200 to familiarize themselves with the area.

It was there that Butler observed the truck, and occupants he did not recognize, twice in the same area within an hour.

Local law enforcement and Army officials agree what happened next was a case of mistaken identity by both sides. As a result, safety measures in place--which called for the soldiers to be passive when reality intruded on the game--did not kick in.

In the parking lot of a red-bricked and white-steepled church, Butler approached the truck driven by Leiber, who lives about 20 minutes from Robbins in an adjacent county. Butler told investigators he believed Leiber was trying to hide something because he saw him with a bag and then saw him try to shove the bag underneath his legs.

Leiber told him they were trying to hire migrant workers. That rang false to Butler because of the time of year.

He then put Leiber in the back of his patrol car before returning to talk to the Tomeny and Phelps. In the bag he had previously spotted, Butler believed he saw two Army rifles--although military officials later said it was one disassembled M-4 carbine with a muzzle to prevent live fire.

Tomeny approached Butler. The deputy sprayed him with pepper Mace. Butler told investigators that he then asked the men to show him their hands, but they did not. Phelps, he said, went for the bag as Tomeny urged him to get a gun. At that point Butler began shooting.

His frantic call for help once the two men were down was released Monday and played by local television and radio stations.

King said that while Moore County sheriff's officials were aware of the training exercise, no one from the Army had notified them of the Saturday reconnaissance mission in their jurisdiction "because there was nothing to coordinate."

The Robin Sage exercise, half a century old, is now conducted four times a year. In August, shortly before the last Robin Sage, Army officials asked local media to warn civilians that gunfire and strange activity they might come across was really an "unconventional warfare training scenario."

"Safety is our No. 1 priority," the Army said then. It added that "extensive planning" had been done with local officials to minimize everyone's risk. This year the Army issued no such warning.

Butler, who has been out on administrative leave with pay since Saturday, was expected to come back to work today. Phelps, 27, was listed in fair condition at a local hospital.

Many residents throughout the fictional "Pineland" say that over the 50 years the Army has been training here, they have grown accustomed to gunfire and the fireworks of practice warfare.

Others said they were shocked by the shooting. "I've lived here all my life and I always knew the military trained in this area, but I didn't know they did this kind of training," said Ann Moore, who works for the town of Robbins as a zoning administrator.

But in a region with a long and warm relationship with the military, no one said the training should stop.

Moore County's Carter asked for the final word at Tuesday's news conference.

"I'd just like to say that the Moore County Sheriff's Department is in full support of our military training within the borders of Moore County," he said. "And we will work with them closely in the future to make sure a tragic event like this does not occur."

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